Things were not going well in Europe in the early 16th century. The Catholic Church was the most powerful institution in Europe. Kings, queens and other leaders derived much of their power from their alliances with the church. But there was also much rebellion, especially from the Germanic tribes in the north and Henry VIII in England. And, there was also the Holy Roman Empire, which was neither holy nor Roman. The church became the arbiter of Royal disputes and the Empire the enforcer of Papal judgments.
The primary economic system was feudalism. The landed gentry were busy securing their place by building great castles. The more urban church was busy securing its place by building great cathedrals. But the landless peasants and the urban poor did all the work simply for the privilege of living on the land or perhaps simply for the privilege of living. The economic divide was enormous. The wealthy lived in what passed for luxury in that day while the poor lived on the edge of starvation in abject poverty.
Meanwhile, the Islamic world was growing larger and more powerful. After the Prophet Muhammad’s death in 632 CE, Muslim armies conquered all of the Middle East and Turkey. Several early attempts had been made to wrest the Holy Land from the Muslims, but all had failed. Now Islam claimed all of North Africa, had crossed the Straits of Gibraltar into Spain, had crossed Bosporus into Greece and the Balkans and stood at the very eastern gates of mainland Europe.
In 1529, Martin Luther was living under the protection of a German prince, Prince Frederick III, at Wartburg Castle. He had been excommunicated by Pope Leo X and was under an arrest warrant from Emperor Charles V. That summer, Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent brought a 200,000 man army to lay siege to Vienna, Austria. Luther saw this as an apocalyptic event with the corrupt church as the harlot, Pope Leo X as the antichrist and the Muslim hoard as the satanic army sent to punish the apostate church. In that context of personal and civil stress he wrote these stirring words:
A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing; Our helper he, amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing: For still our ancient foe doth seek to work us woe; His craft and power are great, and armed with cruel hate, on earth is not his equal.
Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing; Were not the right man on our side, a man of God’s own choosing: Dost ask who that may be? Christ Jesus, it is he;
And he must win the battle.
And though this world with devils filled should threaten to undo us, We will not fear, for God hath willed His truth to triumph through us: The Prince of Darkness grim – we tremble not for him;
His rage we can endure, for lo, his doom is sure,
One little word shall fell him.
That word above all earthly powers, no thanks to them, abideth; The Spirit and the gifts are ours through him who with us sideth: Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also;
The body they may kill, God’s truth abideth still;
His kingdom is forever!
A lot has changed in 500 years. Our theater of concern has grown from continental Europe to cover the whole world. But a lot looks all too familiar.
Feudalism has given way first to capitalism then to socialism or communism, but the economic disparity between rich and poor is still very much with us. It is said that the richest 1% control as much wealth as the remaining 99%. According to the UN, 1.2 billion people (about 20% of the world’s population) live in extreme poverty on less than $1.25 per day while a basketball player can make $31 million a year. And a Russian oligarch can pay $1.2 Billion for a yacht to accommodate 24 guests while over a million children die each year from malnutrition related causes.
The Christian church which has been a worldwide influence during the colonial period, the Industrial Revolution and into the Information Age, is under attack. The very freedoms that Christianity has fostered and supported and defended around the world are being used against us. The moral standards of sexuality, integrity and civility are under increasing attack from secular society. And the specter of Islam is rising throughout the world in the form of terrorism and armed insurgencies, and it often targets Christians specifically. There is violence wherever we look around the world. Then there is the Little Fat Boy who has recently gained nuclear capability and seems anxious to use it on somebody – anybody. And there is the Ayatollah who wants nuclear weapons so he can prove the superiority of Islam by winning WW3.
It would be easy to view all this in apocalyptic terms because just like Europe of the 16th century, things are not going too well these days. It would do us well to think about Luther’s words and remember that our God is a mighty fortress who’s kingdom will last forever.
For more information about Martin Luther, visit https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Martin_Luther.